LONG BEACH, Calif. – Bob, a military veteran in his 60s, remembers all too well his days living homeless in Long Beach. He said he dealt with unfriendly police officers and judgmental passersby. Even getting coffee was a hassle.
“When you walk into a store sometimes … they treat you like a second class citizen,” said Bob, who didn’t want to give his real name. “I would walk into a store, let’s say a small ma n’ pa convenience store, and the owner would assume I was stealing. That happened a lot.”
There are at least 1,700 commercial shops in the downtown neighborhood, many of them frequented by the area’s large homeless population. And while homeless patrons say all they want is to be treated like other customers, business owners complain of the many challenges they pose.
Long Beach has the fourth highest rate of unsheltered homeless people for major cities in the nation, according to a 2013 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report. In 2015’s Long Beach homeless count, 36 percent of homeless adults reported having a serious mental illness and 22 percent reported substance abuse issues.
The growing tension between the homeless population and nearby businesses has become such an issue with the downtown area that stakeholders hosted a panel on the topic.
The panel, “Homelessness and the Business Community,” was held at the Small Business Development Center and included members of Downtown Long Beach Associates, the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) Quality of Life Division, Long Beach Health & Human Services, Mental Health America Los Angeles, and educators from the Cal State University Long Beach School of Social Work.
Most of those in the audience were business owners and employees from the downtown Long Beach area, many of whom expressed urgent concerns regarding criminal behavior and other disturbances they say is harmful to their businesses.
But others were more sympathetic to the struggles that homeless people face.
“We don’t know their journey, or all the steps they took to get to that point,” said Giovanna Ferraro, a panelist and owner of Groundwork Fitness. “But what we do know is that we need more [resources].”
The LBPD Quality of Life Unit works closely with the homeless population, with officers and homeless persons often referring to each other by first name.
“The majority of the people that we come across suffer from alcoholism, they suffer from drug addiction,” said Officer Chris Roth during the panel. “They have mental issues or they suffer some kind of trauma in their life that has caused them to be homeless.”
From her coffee shop in Long Beach, owner Kimberly Righettini-Vargas of Brew-Haus Coffee & Tea said that her main concern is the cost of serving homeless persons.
“Expenses to be in business are so high, and when you have people just picking one thing as little as a fork or napkin, somebody has to pay for that. If they’re not a customer, it’s a problem,” said Righettini-Vargas.
She added that police officers are having to do the work of city and county services. “We have a friend who is in the LBPD, and he comes and checks in every once in a while,” she explained, saying that county and city agencies should better collaborate to solve the challenges.
According to Righettini-Vargas, the city typically falls back on trying to push the homeless population toward the riverbed in Los Angeles county, and the county ends up pushing them back.
Many homeless people say the riverbed is unsafe and don’t want to go.
Between 2013 and 2015, Long Beach’s homeless population dropped 18 percent to 2,345, the homeless count shows. For those remaining on the streets, the hope is that businesses can be friendlier.
“People keep saying [the problem] is ‘unsolvable,’ but I know many people who work with the homeless and know exactly what they need,” said Bob. “They just need to tap those resources.”